Goodbyes are never easy

Parting with New York City took me awhile to mentally accept—as I don’t know how I could ever be truly ready to leave such a vibrant, bustling city—but leaving the country as a whole? “You’re fucking crazy!” as understandably stated by several relatives and friends.

I now find myself on the other side of the country, waiting out a seven-turned-fourteen-hour layover in LAX and again mentally preparing for this leave from my home of 26 years. It’s hard to believe that this day is finally here. I’ve been anticipating it for months, having committed to this move in early June.

The physical process of moving abroad is an undertaking in itself, if only for the impossible task of packing your entire life into two 50 lb. suitcases and two carry on bags. When I moved home to Cincinnati from NYC, I managed to downsize my entire apartment into a jeep-full of boxes and bags. One week later, I managed to strip my entire wardrobe down to the absolute necessary and begrudgingly leave behind over 40 pairs of shoes and countless outfits.

Leaving was hard, but it wasn’t Cincinnati I would be missing. As it turns out, being home for ten days is more than enough downtime because there’s only so much to do in Ohio (eat, sleep, drink, repeat). It was the leaving behind of my family and friends that makes it the most difficult. I have so many people in my life that are rooting for me to grow from this experience and succeed, and it is starting to dawn on me that I won’t be seeing many of them for a very long time.

It’s actually quite the contradiction: I often feel the closest to the ones I love when I am furthest from them. I think that may be more common than you think, as traveling has a way of making folks become more reflective, humble individuals. I’ve only been gone a few days and my appreciation for my loved ones has grown exponentially.

And with that appreciation, might come homesickness. I expect to experience that at some point, but in our digital age, it’s never been easiest to communicate back home and get in touch with family. I reassure myself that they are never more than a video call or email away. In fact, I truly believe there’s never been a better time than now to travel: I may thousands of miles across the Pacific, but I’m never alone.

With every goodbye, comes a new hello. I can’t wait to say hello to my new home!!!

Read. // Listen.

Read. // Harvard grad turned algebra teacher’s speech to the 2015 graduating class of my alma mater, Madeira High School:

Understanding compensation and reaping its benefits largely comes down to your attitude. Will you be the type who wallows in self-pity? Will you be the one who always sees the sky falling? Or will you be the one who sees the silver lining in every dark cloud? And will you be the one who anticipates the sun coming up tomorrow?

As you move into your futures, I am not going to wish you a fairy-tale life where you live happily ever after. I am not going to wish you a road without bumps and dead ends and obstacles. I am not going to wish you a world without hardship. Instead, I am going to wish you the strength to persevere when everything around you is falling apart. I am going to wish you the ability to rise from the ashes and bounce back stronger than ever when it seems like nothing is going your way. I am going to wish you the faith, wisdom, and guidance to overcome all which comes to you, to find the silver lining in every cloud, to find the compensation in every loss. Vince Lombardi, the famous football coach, put it well when he said: “The glory is not in never falling down. The glory is in fighting to get up every time you do get knocked down.” Another writer said this thought in a different way which I have always found inspiring: “Only when the sky is darkest can I see the stars.”

Listen. //

Negotiating the balance between writing and motherhood

These modern female writers all desired to love deeply and intimately, to challenge themselves, to experiment with permanence, to create something that would outlast them, to never turn away from a human experience. Such are the qualities of motherhood, not “momish”ness—it’s not all nurturing and sacrifice, regardless of how our culture chooses to define and deify the maternal.

The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and Mother: Have Just One Kid

Such is the supposed dilemma between motherhood and a successful career–but I’m wondering if these questions reflect the internalization that women have to choose between the two: either have a happy career or a happy home. One will cost you the other. There’s an underlying judgment from society that says, Which do you value more? Yourself or your children?

I get the sinking feeling that writers are viewed as self-absorbed, negligent even (“It was not widely considered an ideal year to take an infant to southeast Asia, yet it never occurred to me to adjust the plan,” [Didion] wrote), but this type of selfishness and devotion to prose is what leads to compelling writing, stunning ideas. To think that our decisions to do what makes us happy, in this case writing, will lead to the loss of something with incalculable value is a little worrying, a little condescending , and frankly, quite a bit thought-provoking, especially for someone that hopes to be a published writer and maybe mom one day.

Once upon a time, motherhood marks the advent of maturity, says Ann Hubert, rather than the current orgy of anxiety. Anxiety to have kids, anxiety of giving up something intangible (youth? work? friends? sex life?). “Do not have kids until you are ready. Or at all,” is something that I always hear my father say, having had me at the age of 30-something himself and my brother a few years later. As the most self-reliant, intelligent, yet commitment-fearing individual I know, I know he says it with the kindest intentions. The implication being that children can be a huge obstacle for the journey of self-fulfillment. As the child of a wanderer, I see so much of him in myself: the fierce desire to be independent, well-traveled, and totally open to any and new experiences and hardships, taking them as opportunities for growth and self-reflection. However, watching him move from one career to the next–military veteran, CEO, PhD candidate, professor of finance, now traveler and adjunct university professor–I notice one constant in his life, two people that he has created and can always count on to ground him, keep him company (when he wants it), and love him unconditionally: my brother and I.

In fact, this revelation intertwines family, writing, children, and happiness so closely and inexplicably–without us, there would be no him, in this moment, with all those choices that defined the life he has lived. He chooses to live his life with no regrets, making no excuses for what he’s done or hasn’t done. If he wants to do something, he does it. As my father, he will always hold my actions to a high standard, urging me to push myself mentally, emotionally, artistically. If I decide to become a mother, this won’t change–in fact, the standard will most likely be held to a higher degree, if only because he knows that motherhood is a daunting next step in my life, and I need to be prepared to do everything in my power to be a good mother, yet be true to my personal aspirations.

“Watch your eyesight,” says my Filipino mom, her intended meaning being watch your perspective. Watch your perspective–and adjust it, if necessary–is right. Motherhood will add a dimension to your writing that never existed before–an entirely new subject to reflect upon, vent about, form opinions on. Work with what you have. Writing about your children makes you no less of a writer, it makes you someone that writes about topics that are meaningful to you, topics that matter to a lot of people.

I don’t think that pursuing your dreams means that you will automatically be compromising your integrity as a parent and individual. Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, and Mary McCarthy were good people, the writers of our times, scrutinized mothers. To me, writing came naturally, motherhood is a learned trait. There is a way to negotiate being both, without losing one, or the other, or both. Having children does change everything, but it doesn’t have to change who you are or what you do. Demand time for yourself. Dedicate yourself to your craft and realize that if you feel like you are a shitty writer, it’s not because of your children–or your job–or your spouse or noisy people outside of your apartment at 3AM. It’s because of you.

For All You Idealistic, Enthusiastic Writers with Little Professional Writing Experience

A week or so before ringing in the New Year, I posted a Facebook status for the first time in months: No New Year’s resolutions for me… I wanted to make changes in my life, so I made them when they needed to happen, not because it’s a new year. Cheers to another year of good choices and happy memories!

I received a chorus of “Oh…” and “Amen, sista!” from my friends, and I know it sounds a little condescending and sarcastic, but I still stand by it. It has nothing to do with gym promises, crash dieting, or even devising my own 2013 bucket list. It’s about the fact that for the first time in my twenty-three years of life, I’m trying to take control of my life and do something about the fact that I’m an idealistic, enthusiastic, passionate writer with little professional writing experience.

I made a promise to myself to blog daily, reach out to online writing communities, read more frequently, and take full advantage of my time living in New York City. I’ve found that as I blog and talk to other writers more, my desire to reach out to other people in similar situations as me increases, solidifying the purpose behind my blogDo Now.

Here’s what I know…
I’m tired of hearing that everything you do should align with an “ultimate” goal. Whether or not you choose them, your experiences are what shape you as a person, define your writing, and inform your decisions. I think that we should stop thinking about how we should best live our lives and live it! Does it feel good to hear it? Because it feels good to say it. I’m a teaching assistant at an urban high school in the Bronx, and it might not outwardly appear to fit my criteria for my “life’s work,” but who cares! While I may not be writing for a magazine or working for a publishing house, I’m doing something that is important and meaningful; something inspires me and surrounds me with amazing, thoughtful individuals.

You should always keep your promises.
In my 9th grade English classes, we’re teaching our students how to formulate solid opinions to a number of statements: When it comes down to it, you’re only responsible for yourself. Success comes through hard work. You should always keep your promises.

I’ve had to explain to my students over and over again why promises and honesty are important to people and it’s led me to think about the fact that many of us are not being honest with ourselves. Truth time: How badly do you want to be an engaging and distinct writer? While I’m a non-believer about the grand plan, I still believe there’s so much value in doing everything possible to put yourself out there. Are you sitting idly by, or trying to connect with to fellow writers and improve your craft? Are you prepared to face rejection? And finally, do you enjoy writing? Why is it important to you?

Keeping these questions in mind, I think it’s time to move forward from whatever inaction or fear that has been holding you back and take the initiative to do better. It’s not an impossible task, especially if I can do it! I’ve proved to myself that I can refocus my energies towards creating compelling, relevant content. From here on out, it’s all about sustaining that energy and maintaining your writerly momentum.

At the beginning of 2012, I was consumed by my senior thesis and creative writing workshops. When working under a deadline, I couldn’t stop writing. I wrote every single day, revised and tweaked and dismantled mywriting until I couldn’t recognize it, then put it all back together in the hopes that it would become more than just a final workshop project. Back then, my journal was brimming with ideas, character maps, and scribbles in the corner. Six months ago, it was empty and sad. I lost that momentum and allowed myself to sink into a state ofwriter’s limbo, where I’m thinking about writing and how I should be revising and submitting work, but not actually doing anything about it. I started critiquing the quality of my work before I even wrote it down!

After the crisis of I’m-about-to-graduate-college-and-enter-the-real-world died down, I realized that not only do we need to stop putting pressure on ourselves to be constantly making career moves, but we need to stop pressuring ourselves to be the perfect writers. It really doesn’t exist, especially the first or even fifth draft around. Now, I find myself re-writing the words of my favorite authors and poets: Joan Didion, Adrienne Rich, David Sedaris, Gerald Stern, Vladimir Nabokov. I find myself re-writing their words when I can’t, for the life of me, find my own voice.

And it helps. I transcribed a hilarious excerpt by David Sedaris and realized that I wanted to respond to it. I have something of value to say. I’m training myself to constantly be working on my craft, on my own timeline, because it’s important to find the discipline to write on a daily basis. A hundred words are better than no words. If you find yourself starting and stopping, or trashing every single word you write, then take a break. Read a book and underline those amazing passages that startle you, piss you off, make you smile. Realize that you are not alone in this. There are so many writers in the world that feel deflated and uninspired, looking everywhere for motivation and epiphanies, but finding that when they set out to discover that pivotal moment or experience that drives a best-seller or career move, it is more likely than ever to not happen.

So what happens next?
After all this, I think the answer is pretty obvious, don’t you? When it comes down to it, you’re only responsible for yourself. Success comes through hard work. You should always keep your promises.

If anything, keep this promise to yourself: Write every day. Read every day.

Realities of race + culture

Traditional standards of beauty in China have also shaped perceptions of black foreigners in the country. In China, “whiteness” is seen as a highly desirable trait for women. Stores that sell beauty products without fail have a wide variety of whitening creams. The Chinese and Western models that fill the screen and print ads all fit one standard type of beauty — very white skin, tall, thin with jet-black hair. There is even a Chinese saying: “A girl can be ugly, as long as she has white skin.”

On Being Black in China, The Atlantic

No one keeps official count of how many paid and unpaid internships there are, but Lance Choy, director of the Career Development Center at Stanford University, sees definitive evidence that the number of unpaid internships is mushrooming — fueled by employers’ desire to hold down costs and students’ eagerness to gain experience for their résumés. Employers posted 643 unpaid internships on Stanford’s job board this academic year, more than triple the 174 posted two years ago.

The Unpaid Intern, Legal or Not?


With all the college graduations happening in the next month or so, I’ve been thinking a lot about my college readers who are feeling anything between excitement to fear and probably have no idea what they’re doing. I refuse to ask any graduating seniors, So what’s your plan? What are you thinking of doing? If only because when I was about to graduate and someone asked me that question for the 1000th time, my gut reaction was to punch them in the face. But I survived the questions and the release from college. And you will too. After a almost a year of living the post-grad life, I have news for you: not much has changed.

I’ve been reading Cheryl Strayed’s book Tiny, Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, a compilation of all her columns thus far as Sugar, and one entry in particular stuck out to me. Her blunt honesty and no-nonsense advice is something that we all need to hear sometimes.



May 5th, 2011

Dearest Sugar, Light of My Thursday Afternoons:

I teach a few creative writing courses at the University of Alabama where the majority of my students are seniors graduating in May. Most of them are English and Creative Writing majors/minors who are feeling a great deal of dread and anxiety about their expulsion from academia and their entry into “the real world.” Many of their friends in other disciplines have already lined up post-graduate jobs, and many of my students are tired of the “being an English major prepares you for law school” comments being made by friends and family alike, who are pressuring them towards a career in law despite having little or no interest in it.

I have been reading a handful of your columns to my students in an attempt to pep them up and let them know that everything is going to be all right. They have written like motherfuckers. They have pictured the kittens behind the sheetrock.

Our school has decided to forgo a graduation speaker for the last five years or so, and even when we did have a graduation speaker, often they were leaders in business or former athletes, and so their message was lost on the ears of the majority of 21 and 22-year-olds. So Sugar, I am cordially asking you to deliver a graduation speech for our little class of writers. While we might have difficulty obtaining you an honorary PhD, believe me when I say that among us are some extremely talented writers, bakers, musicians, editors, designers and video game players who will gladly write you a lyric essay, bake you a pie, write you a song, and perform countless other acts of kindness in exchange for your advice.

Cupcake & Team 408

Dear Cupcake &Team 408,

There’s a line by the Italian writer Carlo Levi that I think is apt here: “The future has an ancient heart.” I love it because it expresses with such grace and economy what is certainly true—that who we become is born of who we most primitively are; that we both know and cannot possibly know what it is we’ve yet to make manifest in our lives. I think it’s a useful sentiment for you to reflect upon now, sweet peas, at this moment when the future likely feels the opposite of ancient, when instead it feels like a Lamborghini that’s pulled up to the curb while every voice around demands you get in and drive.

I’m here to tell you it’s okay to travel by foot. In fact, I recommend it. There is so much ahead that’s worth seeing; so much behind you can’t identify at top speed. Your teacher is correct: You’re going to be all right. And you’re going to be all right not because you majored in English or didn’t and not because you plan to apply to law school or don’t, but because all right is almost always where we eventually land, even if we fuck up entirely along the way.

I know. I fucked up some things. I was an English major too. As it happens, I lied for six years about having an English degree, though I didn’t exactly mean to lie. I had in truth gone to college and participated in a graduation ceremony. I’d walked across the stage and collected a paper baton. On that paper it said a bachelor’s degree would be mine once I finished one final class. It seemed like such an easy thing to do, but it wasn’t. And so I didn’t do it and the years slipped past, each one making it seem more unlikely that I’d ever get my degree. I’d done all the coursework except that one class. I’d gotten good grades. To claim that I had an English degree was truer than not, I told myself. But that didn’t make it true.

You have to do what you have to do. You can’t go to law school if you don’t have any interest in being a lawyer. You can’t take a class if taking a class feels like it’s going to kill you. Faking it never works. If you don’t believe me, read Richard Wright. Read Charlotte Brontë. Read Joy Harjo. Read William Trevor. Read the entire Western canon. Or just close your eyes and remember everything you already know. Let whatever mysterious starlight that guided you this far, guide you onward into whatever crazy beauty awaits. Trust that all you learned during your college years was worth learning, no matter what answer you have or do not have about what use it is. Know that all those stories and poems and plays and novels are a part of you now and that they are bigger than you and they will always be.

I was a waitress during most of the years that I didn’t have my English degree. My mother had been a waitress for many of the years that she was raising my siblings and me. She loved to read. She always wanted to go to college. One time she took a night class when I was very young and my father became enraged with her and cut her textbook into tiny pieces with a pair of scissors. She dropped the class. I think it was Biology.

You don’t have to get a job that makes others feel comfortable about what they perceive as your success. You don’t have to explain what you plan to do with your life. You don’t have to justify your education by demonstrating its financial rewards. You don’t have to maintain an impeccable credit score. Anyone who expects you to do any of those things has no sense of history or economics or science or the arts.

You have to pay your own electric bill. You have to be kind. You have to give it all you got. You have to find people who love you truly and love them back with the same truth.

But that’s all.

I got married when I was in college. I got divorced during the years that I was lying about having an English degree. When I met the man to whom I am now married he said, “You know, I really think you should finish your degree, not because I want you to, but I can tell that you want to.” I thought he was sort of being an asshole. We didn’t bring up the subject again for a year.

I understand what you’re afraid of, sweet peas. I understand what your parents fear. There are practical concerns. One needs money to live. And then there is a deep longing to feel legitimate in the world, to feel that others hold us in regard. I felt intermittently ashamed during my years as a waitress. I’m the only one of my siblings who went to college. I was supposed to be the one who “made it.” At times it seemed instead I had squandered my education and dishonored my dead mother by becoming a waitress like her. Sometimes I would think of this as I went from table to table with my tray and I’d have to think of something else so I wouldn’t cry.

Years after I no longer worked at the last restaurant where I waited tables, my first novel was published. The man who’d been my manager at the restaurant read about me in the newspaper and came to my reading. He’d been a pretty awful boss—in fact, at times I’d despised him—but I was touched to see him in the bookstore that night. “All those years ago, who would have ever guessed we’d be here celebrating the publication of your novel?” he asked when we embraced.

“I would have,” I replied.

And it was true. I always would have guessed it, even all the time that I feared it would never happen. Being there that night was the meaning of my life. Getting there had been my every intention. When I say you don’t have to explain what you’re going to do with your life I’m not suggesting you lounge around whining about how difficult it is. I’m suggesting you apply yourself with some serious motherfuck-i-tude in directions for which we have no accurate measurement. I’m talking about work. And love.

It’s really condescending to tell you how young you are. It’s even inaccurate. Some of you who are graduating from college are not young. Some of you are older than me. But to those of you new college graduates who are indeed young, the old new college graduates will back me up on this: you are so god damned young. Which means about eight of the ten things you have decided about yourself will over time prove to be false. The other two things will prove to be so true that you’ll look back in twenty years and howl.

My mother was young too, but not like those of you who are so god damned young. She was forty when she finally went to college. She spent the last years of her life as a college student, though she didn’t know they were her last years. She thought she was at the beginning of the next era of her life. She died a couple of months before we were both supposed to graduate from different schools. At her memorial service, my mother’s favorite professor stood up and granted her a PhD.

The most terrible and beautiful and interesting things happen in a life. For some of you, those things have already happened. Whatever happens to you belongs to you. Make it yours. Feed it to yourself even if it feels impossible to swallow. Let it nurture you, because it will.

I have learned this over and over and over again.

There came a day when I decided to stop lying. I called the college from which I did not have an English degree and asked the woman who answered the phone what I needed to do to get one. She told me I had only to take one class. It could be any class. I chose Latin. I’d never studied Latin, but I wanted to know, at last, where so many of our words come from. I had a romantic idea of what it would be like to study Latin—the Romance languages are, after all, descended from it—but it wasn’t romantic. It was a lot of confusion and memorization and attempting to decipher bizarre stories about soldiers marching around ancient lands. In spite of my best efforts, I got a B.

One thing I never forgot from my Latin class is that a language that is descended from another language is called a daughter language.

It was the beginning of the next era of my life, like this is of yours.

Years after I no longer lived in the state where my mother and I went to college , my first novel was published and I traveled to that state to give a reading. Just as my former awful boss had done in a different city mere weeks before, the professor who’d granted my mother a PhD at her memorial service read about me in the newspaper and came to the bookstore to hear me read. “All those years ago, who would have ever guessed we’d be here celebrating the publication of your novel?” she asked when we embraced.

“Not me,” I replied. “Not me.”

And it was true. I meant it as sincerely as I’d meant that I always would’ve guessed it when I’d been speaking to my boss. That both things could be true at once—my disbelief as well as my certainty—was the unification of the ancient and the future parts of me. It was everything I intended and yet still I was surprised by what I got.

I hope you will be surprised and knowing at once. I hope you’ll always have love. I hope you’ll have days of ease and a good sense of humor. I hope one of you really will bake me a pie (banana cream, please). I hope when people ask what you’re going to do with your English and/or creative writing degree you’ll say: Continue my bookish examination of the contradictions and complexities of human motivation and desire; or maybe just: Carry it with me, as I do everything that matters. And then smile very serenely until they say oh.